What's the best way to do Disney like an Insider?

September 13, 2018, 1:09 PM · Okay, so you've visited Disneyland or the Walt Disney World Resort. But you want more. You want to go behind the scenes and experience life like an insider — watching Disney's Imagineers at work, walking the backlot of the Disney Studios and discovering the unseen history of the Walt Disney Company. How do you do it?

Disney offers its fans much more than theme parks as vacation options. Among the many different tours and experiences you can book through Disney are several that will get you behind-the-scenes or backstage access to parts of the company rarely seen by its theme park visitors. Of course, these opportunities come at a price, but that price can vary wildly, so let's look at some of your options for an insider's visit to Disney.

The simplest, most comprehensive option also is — as one might expect — the most expensive. But it also provides the only guaranteed access to the toughest "get" for Disney theme park fans — a visit inside the Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale.

As the editor of Theme Park Insider and a newspaper columnist, I've had the privilege of being invited by Disney to tour Imagineering and sit down to talk with top Imagineers on several occasions. And as jaded as I sometimes can be having covered this industry for decades, walking into Imagineering never fails to amaze me. That said, if you forced me to choose between visiting WDI in Glendale or one of its finished works in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Hong Kong, I'm spending my money to visit the theme park. Hey, eating the sausage is more fun than watching it get made, right?

But for fans who know those parks by heart, getting the chance to discover a new perspective on them by visiting the place where they were designed can be an amazing and rewarding experience. Adventures by Disney offers two Southern California tours that include a visit to Walt Disney Imagineering: a six-day itinerary that includes days in Hollywood and the Disneyland Resort and a four-day "short escape" that skips Hollywood and compresses the Disneyland visit.

Both tours also include trips to the Walt Disney Studios lot and Disney Archives in Burbank, which is the next suburb over from Glendale. Keep in mind that Glendale and Burbank lie on the other side of Los Angeles from Anaheim in Orange County, so there's a long freeway haul between those destinations and Disneyland. But Adventures by Disney will cover that for you, providing transportation between all tour destinations so you don't have to navigate SoCal freeways.

The price ain't cheap: up to $3,899 per adult for the six-day tour and $2,369 per adult for the four-day one, based on double occupancy in Disney's Grand Californian hotel and Loews Hollywood Hotel (and, let's be honest, getting someone else to drive you and your family up and down the 5 at rush hour). The price includes all admissions and some meals, but if you are willing to forgo the Imagineering visit, you can book other insider elements of the tour for less, through other means.

The next best option to get inside access to Disney is to join D23, the company's official fan community. D23 offers several members-only events during the year, including tours of the Disney Studios lot, visits to the Archives, and "Lunch with an Imagineer" events. These events sell out quickly, in large part because the prices are typically an order of magnitude (or two!) less than the Adventures by Disney extravaganzas.

At the Disneyland Resort, you can book separately the guided tours included in the Adventures by Disney packages. The "Walk in Walt's Footsteps" tour, for example, costs $109 per person (on top of the required theme park admission) and includes front-of-line access to selected attractions that opened during Walt's life and often includes a visit to Walt's apartment above Town Square, which is not otherwise open to the public. (The Walt's apartment visit is not guaranteed.)

At the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, you can get even more backstage access through the $275 Backstage Magic tour, which includes a glimpse at the famous Magic Kingdom tunnels.

Have you experienced any of these behind-the-scenes opportunities for Disney theme park fans? Were they worth the price? Which ones would your recommend? And what other experiences would you like to see Disney offer its fans? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Replies (3)

September 13, 2018 at 1:39 PM

I think it's important to note that quite a few of the behind the scenes tours and experiences have age restrictions. Typically any WDW tour that goes into backstage areas where characters roam not fully in costume/character are off limits to guests under 12.

As with anything Disney, they tend to be quite overpriced, especially when you consider many occur during normal park hours and require park admission (meaning you're losing value on your admission cost while on the tour). We did the old Segway tours at EPCOT and DCA before our son was born (over 10 years ago) when Disney was not gouging guests as much as they do today (I seem to recall they were both in the $60-75 range, but both occurred before the parks opened for the day, and let you off with a head start over guests coming in the main gate). Neither tour had significant "behind the scenes" portions, but it was pretty cool to roam around the parks before anyone else was allowed in (and staff were cleaning and getting the parks ready for the day).

I've always wanted to do DiveQuest, but at $179/person, I think I'd rather go hang out at Discovery Cove for a day.

September 13, 2018 at 5:22 PM

Best thing is get it for free or paid. I'll tell you how...

I was once in college engineering program and I joined an engineering club that had a free backstage tour of Disneyland. I only joined for that. I certainly learned a lot, but I don't quite remembered how it went. I also worked at Disneyland for one summer season, which gave me a great perspective of how workers did their thing and saw the backstage areas.

Many colleges offer opportunities to work at Disneyland. I noticed how many Fullerton and Biola students work there during the summer break. Of course, a Disneyland employee isn't going to see what an Imagineer does. There are other chances of meeting them for cheap or free. I saw Marty Sklar when he visited my local city for a presentation. I still have his autograph. You might meet them at local events and conventions.

I'm pretty much Disneyed out by now. I'd rather just experience the attraction than find out how they work.

Universal's VIP Tour seems like a better value, but it will cost my family $1000 to visit.

September 14, 2018 at 10:39 AM

On our last trip to WDW, we took the "Backstage Magic" Tour. It was 8 hours long and required park admission to all 4 parks. It began at Epcot where they talked about "forced perspective" in world showcase and then took us to the inner workings of American Adventure where we were able to observe the show scenes system in operation. VERY cool to observe that attraction from the OTHER side of the screen. From there, they bused us to Studios where we went into the maintenance bay of Tower of Terror. We got to see how the ride vehicles maneuver trackless and learned the history of the show. Then we were taken to Costumes and Wardrobe and got to observe the vast building that housed it. We saw the costume process from design to finish. Next stop was attraction maintenance where we saw Splash Mountain vehicles being cleaned and updated. It was also where new ride prototype vehicles were being constructed and tested.

After that, it was off to the Magic Kingdom where we were told many facts about the park and in particular, Main Street USA. Then it was down into the utilidores and of course the "tour approved" area isn't that much. They explained how CMs move about the park and how supplies are delivered without guests seeing. They also emphasized their pneumatic trash system which we all know they are so proud of! :) We saw where CMs go to refill their trading pins and how they are encourage to interact with the guests in the art of trading.

Lunch was provided at the Whispering Canyon Cafe at Fort Wilderness. Back then they could still yell! It was my first time there and the meal was excellent. Next stop was Animal Kingdom where we learned a bit about the zoology and operation of the park. We then proceeded to the staging area of Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade to see the floats and they explained how Disney parades operate. I leaned against a float and got yelled at for "touching it"! :D
Afterwards, we went to a roped off private area to watch the parade we just learned about.

The final stop was Disney horticulture to observe how all the special character topiaries are created. This was perhaps the least fascinating of the entire tour. We saw sculptures in their "growing stage" which didn't look like a character yet. Otherwise it was a big greenhouse. No one was physically working there at the time.

Overall, I rate the tour "excellent" if that kind of thing fascinates you. Would I pay $280 to do it again? Nah! This was also 7 years ago and I am sure the offering and price of the current tour has changed, but you do lose and entire day "learning" than you normally would "riding". So before you commit to an "all day" tour, make sure you won't miss the park time!

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